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Schools limit cellphone use in the name of safety

A student demonstrates how to unlock their Yondr phone pouch with a UFO-shaped magnet.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
A student gets their phone unlocked by a special magnet as they arrive at Hopewell High School.

Some Virginia school divisions are turning to companies for help limiting the use of personal electronic devices.

Last year, Hopewell City Public Schools started requiring middle and high school students to keep cellphones locked away in magnetic pouches during the school day. Now, other districts are following suit.

Superintendent Jay McClain said the reason Hopewell started using the cellphone pouches was twofold. Coming out of remote learning, McClain said it was extremely difficult to re-engage kids socially and academically because of the exclusive reliance on devices for learning during the pandemic.

They’d also seen an increasing number of fights and more weapons making their way into schools.

“We had an incident where some students who were not part of our school community… it was arranged for them for some kids to go and meet them at a door and let them in [through] a back door by coordinating through the phones,” McClain said.

McClain said there’ve been some concerns from parents who want their kids to have access to a phone in school for other safety reasons — which he said is understandable. He reassured families that the pouches are not made to be indestructible.

“If it's a real critical incident, you basically can get into them,” McClain said. “It's just to make that threshold for access be something that takes a little bit more work than just pulling a phone out of your pocket.”

He also wants to reassure parents that teachers’ access to devices in the classroom will not be limited for safety purposes, adding that staff members have a panic button app that enables administrators to quickly broadcast messages in an emergency.

“It enables teachers to — with a push of a button — to call 911. That also alerts other folks,” McClain said.

Michael Whittington, security supervisor for Hopewell schools, explained the technology as Hopewell High students filed into the school building one morning.

Staff members monitor the doors as students file in, asking them to turn off their phones before slipping them into personal neoprene pouches that each student was assigned at the beginning of the school year.

A representative for the pouch company, Yondr, describes it as a wetsuit for the phone.

“They'll put it [cellphone] back in the Yondr pouch and it has this little pin and it's locked,” Whittington said.

Once phones are locked in the pouches, students keep them with them throughout the day.

The district accommodates access to the phones during the schoolday on a case-by-case basis. For example, if students need the phones for a health reason like a diabetes monitor. Otherwise, the phones remain locked for the entire school day, after which students need to find a magnet to unlock the pouches.

Whittington holds out a big, circular magnet to demonstrate; the technology is similar to the security tag retail stores use on clothes.

“They’ll take [the pouch], and hit it on the magnet and that unlocks it,” Whittington said.

On the way into school, some students slip their phone — without the pouch — into their backpack before entering the school building. Others say they’re just leaving them at home now.

District leaders admit there is some noncompliance, but say the pouches are still largely effective and make sense for the district.

Students are responsible for replacing their pouch if they damage or lose it. And, McClain said, while some high schoolers have destroyed the pouches, there’s been far less resistance at the middle school level.

I don't ever want to work in another building that doesn't have something like this. It's been that powerful,” said Jeff Boarman, an assistant principal at Carter Woodson Middle School in Hopewell.

Boarman said that in the decade he’s worked at the middle school, he’s seen it transform from a place with nearly zero student cellphones 10 years ago to now — when almost every student has one. And he said that’s come at a cost. Getting kids to put the phones down and focus on assignments is sometimes next to impossible.

It's almost like trying to empty the ocean out with a teaspoon when you've got 850 kids, and 750 of them have a phone and they all start to pull them out,” Boarman said. “Like, what do you do?”

He said they tried just asking kids to keep their phones in their lockers, or out of sight. But that didn’t seem to work. Meanwhile the distractions and discipline issues stemming from the cellphone grew.

“It really just became overwhelming,” he said.

That’s when Boarman and others started searching for a solution and came across the company Yondr. Since the district started using them last year, Boarman says he’s seen the pouches make a difference.

One day, an inappropriate video of a student got posted to Instagram. But because students’ phones were locked away, Boarman was able to contact law enforcement and get it taken down before students could see it.

Before the pouches, he said “every single student in the building that had a phone would have had that video right away during the daytime, and they would have been going to the bathroom watching it. It’s incredibly disruptive when something like that happens.”

Now, other Virginia school districts are looking to this technology as a possible solution to some of their safety concerns. Charlottesville City Schools recently introduced the pouches, effectively banning student cellphone use districtwide.

Meanwhile, Richmond Public Schools plans to pilot the pouches at five schools next semester. Similar to Hopewell, district leaders there anticipate limiting cellphone use in school will cut down on fights. Richmond school board member Jonathan Young says he’s also hoping it will help cut down on bullying.

You have all the … body shaming, all the cyber bullying. It's an extraordinary problem,” Young said. “And if you talk to teachers in middle and high school, they will tell you that if you could do anything — if you could do any one thing to help them — it would be to remove the cellphone.”

Young points out that phones are problematic for other reasons. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kids ages 8-18 spend on average 7.5 hours every day in front of a screen — just for entertainment purposes. That doesn’t include screen time for educational uses.

McClain says that in Hopewell, cellphone pouches have helped foster more connection and conversations between teachers and students.

“We had some students saying ‘I didn't realize how attached to my phone I was until I had this,’” he said.

The pouches cost the district $15 per student each year, discounted from the normal $19 per student. Hopewell was able to use one-time pandemic relief funds to purchase them. But if students lose or damage their pouch, they’re responsible for purchasing a new one.

McClain said he’s still figuring out the role the pouches will play in the district long-term. Ideally, he’d like students to be able to self-manage their cellphone use during the day without them.

“I don't think we're there yet. But we're a lot better further along than we were when we started,” he said.

McClain worries that if the district decides to scratch the pouches, students will revert back to the same behavioral problems school officials were trying to address to begin with.

The reception from the district’s high school students has been mixed.

“From what I've heard around the school, a lot of people [are] not really a big fan of them,” said 18-year-old senior Celso, who said he enjoys using his phone to listen to music while studying and doing work during the day. “But I guess you can say they kind of do keep our school safer.”

Many students don’t love the idea of locking up their phones during the day for a variety of reasons.

“I just feel like it's dumb. I feel like it's not safe either,” said 16-year-old Andrea. “Because some people aren't able to call their families just in case there's an emergency.”

T-Ron, 14, said that if more of his classmates used the pouches as they should, then they’d work better. Personally, he said he leaves his phone at home during the school day.

“Students … they just don't really use them," he said. “So they're not really a great idea, but just a waste of money, especially if people are breaking into them, sneaking their phones in and find[ing] other ways to use them.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.